The Kogod Cradle, Arena Stage’s architecturally high-toned third stage, may not have been the ideal host for “Elephant Room,” a tacky bit of absurdist illusioneering, informed by the ambience of strip-mall cocktail lounges and landscapes featured on motel room walls.
No, “Elephant Room,” written and performed by Steve Cuiffo, Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford, would look far more comfortable in some ramshackle, claustrophobic space, where its raw aesthetics and ironic sensibility might not pose the glaring counterpoint that it does to refined surroundings.
As it is, the 70-minute show, directed by Paul Lazar, comes across as a thin — and occasionally downright sloppy — riff on the sorry state of that quaint staple of birthday parties and down-market casinos, the professional magician. Relying on the good will of audience members (a couple of whom are brought into the antics) the show gives the appearance of being more sincere than, say, something caustically whipped up by the put-on jokester Sacha Baron Cohen of “Borat” fame.
Or is the magic rickety by design? It’s ultimately not transparent, for instance, whether the three performers — Cuiffo in the guise of Louie Magic; Sobelle as Dennis Diamond and Lyford calling himself, er, Daryl Hannah — intend here to demystify magic, a la Penn and Teller; mock it; or honor it. (Maybe it’s all three: They end the production by, patronizingly, reciting a sort of roll call of magicians past.) But along with the more adroit tricks, as in their conjuring of the ingredients of a niftily cooked breakfast, are some highly slipshod gags. Several times, a spectator catches them pulling out items concealed in their jackets, or from hiding places on the set, that they then represent as having materialized in presto-change-o fashion.
Magicians presenting themselves as comically inept have to be incredibly agile, because when the reversal occurs, and they turn out to be true masters, the effects have to be pristine. If, however, some of the sleight of hand really turns out to be slight, an audience’s impressions dissolve from wonder into impatience.
Sobelle and Lyford were at Studio Theatre four years ago as the postmodern physical comedy duo rainpan 43. One of their productions, “All Wear Bowlers,” inventively intermingled live performance and film to draw parallels between Charlie Chaplin’s inimitable silent foolery and more modern forms of clowning. That exercise was a far more thoughtful and endearing effort than the meandering “Elephant Room.”
What the elephant in the room is I'll let you decide, but the sight gag that makes the metaphor concrete is just one more of the evening’s non-sequiturs. The magicians, in bad wigs and false teeth — Sobelle’s character, for example, looks like the aforementioned Borat, and Lyford wears a cowboy jacket and a mullet — flash us big, smarmy grins. “This is our magic rec room,” explains Cuiffo’s Louie, a Gallagher lookalike, on a shabby set by Mimi Lien that seems to be perched on cinder blocks.
Most of the tricks are advanced versions of the classic now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t gags that kids practice with their own magic kits, in their own rec rooms. Eggs vanish and reappear in the magicians’ hands. Milk is made to flow from the unlikeliest vessels. Occasionally, music cranks up and the magicians gyrate in unison, like the wannabe ladies’ men of the “Night at the Roxbury” sketches.
If all these guys are doing is making us feel silly for having believed — a variation on the task magicians attempt — then “Elephant Room” is a meaner-spirited piece than I’m allowing for. In any event, it’s probably the kind of entertainment best viewed by an audience in an altered state. Because in one’s right frame of mind, the show reveals it has very little up its sleeve.
By Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle. Directed by Paul Lazar. Set, Mimi Lien; costumes, Christal Weatherly; lighting, Christopher Kuhl; sound, Nick Kourtides. About 70 minutes. Through Feb. 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.